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Lab Director looks back at 2017

Over the past year, Sanford Lab saw tremendous progress on both the science and infrastructure fronts. Executive Director Mike Headley shares his thoughts about the many accomplishments in 2017.
Dignitaries break ground on the LBNF/DUNE project.

2017 has been an exciting year at Sanford Lab. We’ve seen tremendous progress on current and future experiments, including dark matter and neutrino research; the ongoing efforts of the Black Hills Underground Campus; Education and Outreach; and the Ross Shaft rehabilitation project, which reached the 4850 Level in October. Underpinning the success of our projects is our continued commitment to safety at Sanford Lab. I am so proud of our staff, researchers and contractors for their focus on safety every day.

The success of 2017 is directly related to our strong partnerships with many organizations, including the various science collaborations at Sanford Lab; Fermilab, which has oversight responsibilities for our operations activities for the Department of Energy and is the lead DOE laboratory for the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE) project; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I also want to thank the State of South Dakota and the SDSTA Board of Directors for their strong support of the world-leading underground science at Sanford Lab.

Graphic for groundbreaking

LBNF/DUNE Groundbreaking

On July 21, we celebrated the groundbreaking of the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility, which officially kicked off a new era in particle physics. We’re proud to be one of the sites hosting this international mega-science project, which will be the largest in the United States, and to be working alongside Fermilab and the DUNE collaboration. LBNF/DUNE has the potential to unlock the mysteries of neutrinos, which could explain more about how the universe works and why matter exists at all. At its peak, construction of LBNF is expected to create almost 2,000 jobs throughout South Dakota and a similar number of jobs in Illinois. The experiment will take approximately 10 years to build and will operate for about 20 years. 

International map

International support

The LBNF/DUNE project garnered support from CERN in 2016, marking the first time the European-based science facility supported a major project outside of Europe. In another first, the United Kingdom signed an umbrella agreement with the United States on September 20 that commits $88 million toward the LBNF/DUNE project along with accelerator advancements at Fermilab. The $88 million in funding makes the UK the largest country investor in the project outside of the United States.

CM/GC selected: On Aug. 9, a new team officially signed on to help prepare for the excavation and construction of LBNF. Fermi Research Alliance LLC, which operates Fermilab, awarded Kiewit/Alberici Joint Venture (KAJV) a contract to begin laying the groundwork for the excavation for LBNF, the facility that will support DUNE. KAJV will help finalize design and excavation plans for LBNF and oversee the excavation and removal of more than 800,000 tons of rock, as well as the outfitting of the DUNE caverns.

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Surface cleanroom where LZ will be assembled.

Dark Matter

For several years, we hosted LUX, one of the world's most sensitive dark matter experiments. Now, we're gearing up for the next-generation experiment, LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ). The collaboration had a positive directors’ progress review in November and will begin surface assembly activities in early 2018. We are proud to have made major contributions to LZ, including investing in 80 percent of the xenon, which is being purified at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. We've also updated the Surface Lab cleanroom (pictured above) and built a radon reduction facility. The experiment is expected to begin operations in 2020 and run for five years.

The LUX detector exhibit.

LUX on display

Visitors to the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center can now view the decommissioned Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment on display as an interactive exhibit. On July 18, researchers unveiled the new exhibit, which features a window that allows visitors to view the inside of the detector: copper grids, white Teflon plates and a depiction of the wire grids that were vital to the success of the experiment. Additionally, an interactive kiosk explains the history of the LUX detector and all of the associated parts that are shown in the exhibit, and an actual PMT, one of 120 used in the experiment.

Ribbon cutting at the CASPAR experiment.

CASPAR Ribbon Cutting

In a major step forward, the Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research (CASPAR) collaboration achieved first beam and celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 12. CASPAR's 50-foot long accelerator uses radio-frequency energy to produce a beam of protons or alpha particles from hydrogen or helium gas. The ions enter the accelerating tube, which is kept at high vacuum, then are directed down the beamline using magnets. The particles crash into a target, releasing the same neutrons that fuel the nuclear reactions in stars and produce a large amount of the heavy elements. The collaboration will begin full operations this year.

A researcher examines The Majorana Demonstrator.

Majorana reports results

After years of planning and building its experiment, the Majorana Demonstrator collaboration announced its initial physics results. The team is looking for a rare type of radioactive decay called neutrinoless double-beta decay, which could answer fundamental questions about the universe, including why there is an imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe and why we even exist. The Majorana Demonstrator collaboration needed to show it could achieve the low backgrounds required to see this rare physics event. And the team surpassed its goals, reducing backgrounds to a level that shows promise for a next-generation experiment that will be much larger. 

A driller adding a pipe to a drill rig.


We’re excited to have a new geology collaboration at Sanford Lab: LBNL’s Enhanced Geothermal Systems Collaboration (EGS Collab), which is studying geothermal systems, a clean-energy technology that could power up to 100 million American homes. The SIGMA-V (Stimulation Investigations for Geothermal Modeling and Analysis) team has been collecting data that will inform better predictive and geomechanic models of the subsurface of the earth by drilling several 60-meter long boreholes on the 4850 Level. The data will be applied toward the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), a flagship DOE geothermal project.

Kids look do an activity at Neutrino Day.

Community outreach

Interest in what’s happening at Sanford Lab continues to grow. This year more than 2,000 people attended events hosted by Sanford Lab. During Neutrino Day 2017: Discovery, visitors to Lead participated in a practice eclipse balloon launch, hands-on education activities, video conferences from a mile underground and Fermilab, hoistroom tours and “wild science” and geology demonstrations, and learned all about 2017’s Nobel-winning physics experiment, LIGO, which discovered gravitational waves. We also hosted an Eclipse party and several Deep Talks presentations.

Mark Zuckerberg goes live on Facebook from the 4850 Level.

Facebook visit

Everywhere we go lately, we get asked about Mark Zuckerberg’s July 12 visit to Sanford Lab. The Facebook founder visited South Dakota, where he had lunch with ranchers in Piedmont, discussed net neutrality in Sturgis and stopped by the Sanford Underground Research Facility—all in a single day. In a live-stream video from the 4850 Level, Mr. Zuckerberg talked with Sanford Lab’s Dan Regan and Jaret Heise, and Cabot-Ann Christofferson, a member of the Majorana Collabortion to learn more about the community of Lead and the world-leading science taking place nearly a mile below the earth’s surface. So far, more than 4 million people have viewed the video. We were honored to host him and his team and appreciate his efforts to help Facebook users better understand who we are.

In the 2016-2017 school year, our E&O team reached 12,500 students.

In 2015, our Education and Outreach team introduced K-12 students and teachers to an array of new curriculum units and assembly presentations, all of which are based on the science at Sanford Lab, to schools throughout South Dakota.

Number of students reached since the new programs were introduced.

Our E&O team also hosts field trips with hands-on activities and facilitates teacher workshops. Their hard work and dedication to STEM education is making a big difference for students and teachers across South Dakota. And we couldn’t be happier with the results.

The Ross Shaft crew

Ross Shaft

In October, Sanford Lab achieved a huge milestone when the Ross Shaft crews reached the 4850 Level. For five years, they’ve been stripping out old steel and ground support and replacing it with new steel sets and rock bolts. I am incredibly proud of the hard work and dedication shown by this team over the past five years. We had some great leadership, including that of Bryce Pietzyk, underground access director, and Mike Johnson, Ross Shaft foreman. I also need to thank George Vandine, who led the Ross team for several years, and Will McElroy, former underground access director.

But this was truly a team effort. We couldn’t have done this without our infrastructure technicians and hoist operators, who worked many long days and nights to reach this tremendous milestone; the maintenance staff who oversaw dewatering, electrical and shaft and hoist maintenance; Procurement; ESH; Finance; Communications; the SDSTA Board of Directors; and our many vendors, including True North Steel, F&H Mine Supply and Wheeler Lumber.

Luke Scott looks at pipes to direct water underground.

Infrastructure improvements

West drift bolted

After three years of drilling, bolting and installing pipe supports in the West Lab Access Drift on the 4850 Level, the West Drift is completely bolted. The drift is the main pathway between the Yates and Ross campuses and we expect to see traffic increase dramatically as construction on LBNF/DUNE gets underway.

Water inflow project

When it rains, the Open Cut acts like a big funnel, bringing a lot of water underground—water that collects in a deep pool and must be pumped out. This year, our Underground Maintenance Crew completed a water inflow project that allows us to collect some of that water at higher levels and mitigate the risk of water entering the underground laboratory spaces during high-precipitation events. The project will also lower the cost of pumping water to the surface.

I want to end by expressing our sincere thanks to T. Denny Sanford whose vision and generosity spurred the creation of this facility. I am also grateful for the financial support from the State of South Dakota, the Department of Energy and Fermilab.

Main image contributed by Reader Hahn of Fermilab; other images contributed by Sanford Lab.